Travels with my Xiong di...Maiji Shan...the carved mountain the Cultural Revolution forgot.
On a movie set...one is captured by two dimensional landscapes, urbanity or whatever from past or present on picture boards...setting the scenes the camera dwells on to carry you away with the script.
But when one looks behind the picture boards there is a different world.
China to me is like that...the glitz of the well known sites teeming with tourists and souvenirs...so beautifully and grandly presented...the backstreets oh so different.
Then there is Gansu...a province like no other.
One feels you are well behind the picture boards...in a world that time forgot.
There is a dryness...a silence...a feeling of isolation...the old Silk Road long gone...yet solitary reminders of an exotically spiritual past...like Maiji Shan.
When the barbarians...the Northern Liang invaded Northern China from the west in the 4th Century...they brought Buddhism and carved their shrines like there was no tomorrow.
They cut grottoes into some mountains in Gansu and Maiji Hill aka Wheatstack Mountain was one of them...purplish red sandstone protruding from the loess hinterland.
The Wei continued renovations or additions to Maiji Shan and further was
done by succeeding Dynasties such as the Northern Wei, Western Wei, Northern Zhou, Sui, Tang, Period of the Five Dynasties, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing, so styles varied from Indian to Chinese.
Then it appears they were lost or forgotten.
In the early 1950s a couple of Chinese gents rediscovered them and catalogued 194 grottoes and over 7,000 Buddhist statues and numerous murals.
Then this dancer saw some pics in a 1950s black & white China book in a second hand bookshop in Oz and in 2007 headed off to discover them in colour.
But the dancer was prevented by snow and unimaginable perils from achieving his quest and turned back...defeated...dejected...forlorn.
But as in all great tales the heavens opened...the dancer wined and dined a kindly Chinese man...who offered to drive him to Maiji Shan.
And to the tunes of Teng Ge's "Heaven" the dancer and his Chinese brother approach.
The locals said the dancer was the first Aussie that anyone could recall to visit Maiji Shan and Westerners are very rare.
But this dancer was different.
He came with a Chinese brother...and the locals found this curious indeed...especially as the
tall Chinese one was called Xiong di (younger brother) and the dancer was called Lao Ge (wise older brother).
And when Lao Ge would break into song in Mandarin with a Mongolian accent...heads certainly turned when he did that.
As we drove along we shared lots of laughs...and lots of stories. Hope I get this one right.
When Robin was a youth he was not only tall...he was a talented basketballer...training frequently and hard.
One night riding his pushbike from training...across the train tracks...train coming...gotta be quick...just made it...train coming the other way as well...no time...quick...turn the bike parallel between the tracks...WHACK!!!
One of the trains hit him in the back of his head...hospitalised...plate inserted...still there he's telling me...had to give up basketball...hopes his son will be a good player as well.
I tell that story as it epitomises his character...a lesser man would not have got back up...Robin is some tough guy.
Me feeling admiration...privileged to be here...privileged to be getting to know him...privileged to call him brother.
Then there was the punch up at a police station...maybe I shouldn't tell that one!!!
Over breakfast I find out why I had been ejected from the nightclub last night...the Governor of Gansu's private function...frantic array of people now outside as the Governor leaving...hordes of photographers and rows forming for the official pics.
I race outside and take photos until bodyguards make me stop and escort me back inside...manager apologising.
So as the cavalcade of 4WDs are winding out of there...leaving us as the only guests in the hotel...I line up with the hotel staff for photos of my own.
After all...there was more than one VIP staying at the hotel...only right that Lao Ge gets in on the act.
Robin smiling and shaking his head when he uses my camera to record that!!!
We walk back along the path through a forest to the lookout...only 8 minutes from the hotel...then winding down to the mountain of my dreams...to the ticket office...Robin flashing his card...nil for him...70 yuan for me.
For a ridiculously high price we can score a private tour...shortly after discover why that may have been a good idea.
The grottoes are carved on the southeast and southwest
faces of Maiji Shan and are accessed by staggered narrow steep stepped catwalks pinned to the cliff sides.
Which to my mind makes Maiji Shan unique.
The views up there are staggering.
Most of the 194 grottoes were secured with locked wooden doors with tight mesh windows...bat or birdshit splattered...guess for the protection of the statues and murals.
Most of the statues were made of a composite of clay and grass supported on wooden stakes...not the sandstone I have seen at Yungang in Shanxi Province or Dazu in Chongqing Province or the marble at Luoyang in Henan Province.
I press my face against the mesh windows and beneficent statues stare back...fading murals adorning their dwellings...reeking of ancientness.
I turn to the views far beyond and below.
How in ancient times did worshippers get up here?
These grottoes are cut in cliffs 30 to 80 metres above flat ground.
It's as if the deities look over the mountainous land...masses of worshippers far below...looking up...feeling the blessings floating down.
But other eyes are watching.
At every turn there are video cameras affixed to the catwalk walls...the ambience of the spirituality of
my musings fractured by a nagging itch to remove my camera from the holder at my groin...and the fear if I do so my camera will be taken away.
There is Robin on a landing far below chatting on his mobile phone...a smattering of Chinese tourists on other catwalks moving around.
Then I saw it.
The signs forbidding photos are frequent and clear to see...but the Chinese tourists are videoing and snapping away around the signs like there was no tomorrow.
But I'm the only Westerner around here...been to areas of China where "No Aliens" signs were enforced...can't risk losing my camera...can't risk not having some pics of my quest.
Decisions, decisions...the deities suggesting I must take the risk.
So where there were no CCTVs within view...I braved the heights...whipped my pocket camera out...holding the lens against the mesh...hoping the light technology can see within...most pics taken of statuary that were not concealed.
Wow...what could I see on a private tour? The doors to each grotto would be opened and the treasures revealed that are within...but the cost was high...over 100US dollars...but what did I miss by not venturing in?
two sets of giant Buddhas on the cliff walls made of clay and grass with wooden beams holding them up so they did not slip down.
There were stumps in some grottoes with just tufts of clay and grass where the statues had decayed away.
Others where the hands, arms, eyes and various parts had washed away.
Black goo with rat and mouse droppings...presumably poison as droppings concentrated here and there...bee and wasp nest residue on walls and statuary...borer and insect damage...the majority of statues simply decayed away.
The wooden doors and thick mesh protecting what is left...from wasps, bats, birds, rodents...from the graffiti and destruction of human hordes.
And that is when I noticed something quite remarkable.
There were no bullet holes!!!
During the Cultural revolution from 1949 to 1976, Mao's Red Guards, the uneducated indoctrinated hordes that kept him in power...smashed many ancient relics to overcome religious belief.
I cringe at such sites in the 16 Provinces of China within which I have travelled...the eyes of Buddhist statues either cut out with knives or pocked with bullet holes...cringe and want to cry.
Yet at Maiji Shan like Dazu there
are no bullet holes.
Zhou Enlai, Mao's Premier from 1949 until his death in 1976, some 8 months before Mao's death, was the driving force in preserving the excesses of the Red Guards.
It was on Zhou Enlai's orders that the Red Guards did not deface the magnificent carvings at Dazu in Chongqing Province that we embraced on our way to Sichuan on the trip where we later met Robin in Xian.
Was it Zhou Enlai who also saved Maiji Shan?
Or was it that the area was so remote that it was overlooked or forgotten?
We got down and the ambience shattered.
An all out brawl erupting in front of me...two young men punching, clawing, rolling together...fighting to the death.
No time to video...I have to intervene!
Grasping, clawing, pulling the protagonists apart.
I don't know what came over me...I've never punched anyone in my life...let alone intervened in a brawl.
The fighters then screaming at each other...got to video that...security then stopping me...can't lose my video.
It turns out a security guy was fighting a guy who had sneaked in without paying.
So what to do?
I grabbed both the security guys after the usurper had been turned away...one still red and sweaty...only one thing to do.
I posed for a photo with them!!! To be continued...
Relax & Enjoy,
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